Monday, July 06, 2015

Here Comes the Summer! More on Writing, and more Medieval Posthumanism

Pygmalion and Galatea come to life

So much good stuff down below: Robert McCruer on resisting the torpor and emptiness of academic assessment, and our own Jeffrey on "Writing Lockdowns." Read it.

On the latter point, I'm reminded of two things:

1) last Spring, I co-led a workshop on publication at the CUNY Graduate Center (thanks again to Mary Catherine Kinniburgh for organizing!). Everything I said was good and useful but I myself was a foul fen through which flowed a pure stream of truth. I don't really spend 20 minutes a day writing during the schoolyear: sometimes I don't even manage that during the Summer. Like our heroes Akbari and Gillespie, I write in bursts. And I write to clear my plate (really: a to-do list is a marvelous thing). Now, having checked off the final boxes (a review for Speculum, and, right after, a long overdue encyclopedia article on "Beast Fables"), and facing no list, having only to write for myself through the end of the year, and knowing I really ought to write BOOK2, poor Karl's a-feared.

2) The most glorious moment, though, came between June 8 (when I was asked to write a piece) and June 12 (when I wrote it): 5000 words for the "medieval" contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman. If you've pulled off similar stunts (Asa Mittman, I'm looking at you), let us know in comments. Here I am with more on the problem of AGENCY, a favorite topic at least since New Chaucer Society 2014 (here and, for MLA 2015, here):
We see a still more explicit questioning of free choice in the medieval epistolary debate between Alexander the Great and Dindimus, leader or spokesman of vegetarian sect of Brahman philosophers. Both sides accuse the other of abandoning their human prerogatives: so far as Dindimus is concerned, Alexander is driven relentlessly and irrationally by an instinct for conquest, while Alexander considers the virtuous, anarchic vegetarianism of these fictionalized Brahmans to be just a symptom of their bestial misery, suffered amid a wretched absence of natural resources. Both sides of the argument presume themselves to be the sole human; both suppose themselves to be exercising their free will, either through the enjoyment (and conquest) of the world, or through its rejection; arguably, however, we may understand the debate as little more than the clash of a warrior-machine with an ascetic-machine, each unable to do anything but occupy the positions each is compelled to take.

My final example will be an equally widespread medieval imagining of the pagan orient, the tradition of Barlam and Josephat, a Christianization of the life of the Buddha, itself adapted from adaptations by Manicheans, Muslims, and various non-Roman Christians (see here and here for more!).  A Middle English version of the story often condemns idolaters for believing that “dumb and deaf” idols were “those who made us,” explaining that these mere objects, like beasts, are properly here only to serve us, who alone among created things have a “reasonable will and desire” to chose to “do good or evil.”  But the Christians decrying idolatry themselves hardly seem free of being objects. Their one difference from the idols is that they are not silent objects, as they recite a limited set of scripts in a manner most reminiscent of amusement-park animatronics. It is not only that the text always resorts to the same language to condemn idols – on three, widely separated occasions it calls them “dumb and deaf” – as if it were following a recipe rather than freely arguing;  it is that the Christian credos it repeats to an audience have themselves been fossilized into orthodoxy by centuries of doctrinal pressure. The “freely chosen” belief praised by this text is also, like the idols, a man-made object that humans have fetishically invested with freedom, all the while evacuating themselves of any chance to break with the old debate between objects and agents, constraint and free will.
For the whole thing, see here (or, if bothers you, here). This argument can and should be taken further, perhaps through contemporary considerations of Asperger's (see NPR here on "best practices," which are, functionally, formula for living with others), and through the knotty issue of those violent individuals granted the grace of individual pathologies ("he was a loner") and those identified as just the symptom of a pathological culture (i.e., a culture of honor, shame, fanaticism, atavism, animality, lebensunwertes Leben, etc). Both of these give us violence in which everything is responsible but the individual, in which the individual is only ever the victim of larger forces. And neither really gives us a workable model of "agency."

For still more that might help us, see Jack Kahn at The New Inquiry ("On Neuronationalism: Autism, Immunity, Security") on the ways that agency, responsibility, surveillance, and neurodiversity require and contribute to political thinking. Kahn writes, for example:
As the security of the nation becomes enmeshed with the neurological security of its citizens, medical machinery promises to immunize the social body from the pathogenic emergence of danger.
We might (as others no doubt have) think of the atypical as running programs not entirely in its own control (and therefore needing intervention), but we might also think of the typical as doing just the same (and therefore being left alone). Somewhere in the middle of all this, agency might be found, just as a miracle might be found amid the humdrum cause and effect of business as usual.

1 comment:

Jennifer Alberghini said...

The publication workshop recap is now available on the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study blog: